blues grant to the end

LONDON - When Jose Mourinho left Chelsea last September, the consensus of opinion among most observers was that they would fall apart without "the special one" to guide them.

LONDON - When Jose Mourinho left Chelsea last September, the consensus of opinion among most observers was that they would fall apart without "the special one" to guide them.

Avram Grant, the hitherto almost unknown Israeli who stepped into the breach, was surely out of his depth. How would he be able to pull together the egos at Stamford Bridge? Seven months later and it is almost as if Mourinho had never existed.

Not only did they fight Manchester United all the way for the Premier League title in England before just missing out on the final day of the season, but for the first time in their history they have reached the final of the Champions League, Europe's most prestigious cup competition.

Some will argue that Grant has been lucky - any manager would like to have the players he can call on - but he has seemingly brought them together and that alone is no mean feat.

Not even the persistent grumblings of the likes of Didier Drogba, who seems set to move on at the end of the season, have upset the London club, who showed great resilience to beat Liverpool in the semifinals.

Their 4-3 aggregate win was revenge for two semifinal exits at the hands of Liverpool, in 2005 and last year, and now owner Roman Abramovich stands on the verge of an achievement that his millions were meant to produce.

Now only Manchester United stand in the way of them joining the likes of the Old Trafford side (twice), Liverpool (five times), Nottingham Forest (once) and Aston Villa (once) as English winners of the trophy.

"From day one our target was to be in the Champions League final and to improve our game," Grant said recently.

"We've done more than I even expected, so we want to believe the season will end well and we will fight to the last minute."

Despite his success, Grant has had to deal with constant speculation that he will be moved aside, or back to a director of football role, in the summer.

Barcelona's Frank Rijkaard is the current favourite to replace him, but Grant has not let it affect his work, and the results on the pitch have been as much a testament to his own mental strength as to that of his players.

"I just need to do my job and be professional as I came here on a mission," he said. "The club was a good club but on the way down. Now we are on the right way.

"It is very exciting when you are creating something, especially at Chelsea. Here you need to create and win. We have fantastic players and fantastic staff. We are also playing good football, exciting football."

Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech emphasised that belief in the Chelsea ranks is stronger than ever.

"Sometimes you have to go through all the bad things to get something positive in the end," he said.

"If you get all those bad things and still manage to get points and in the position you are, you show enough character to get something in the end. - Sapa-DPA

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